Rob L. Wagner روب لستر واقنر

September 24, 2012

OP-ED: Toothess Hate Speech Laws Fail all Religions

By Rob L. Wagner

Arab News/Al Arabiya

24 September 2012

Three years ago, French law authorities arrested and later convicted famed fashion designer John Galliano for making anti-Semitic remarks to a couple at a Paris café.
It was a casual conversation that ended ugly, but John Galliano paid the price for his intemperance and bigotry due to France’s hate speech laws. President François Hollande also stripped Galliano of his Légion d’Honneur award following his conviction for “public insults based on origin, religious affiliation, race or ethnicity.”
Ten percent of France’s population is Muslim, yet bigoted comments from print publications, media outlets and even politicians run rampant with the sole intention of abusing Muslims. Extremist American and European writers and politicians claim they are simply exercising their right to free speech. In reality they hide behind free speech protections to voice hatred.
This week the French weekly Charlie Hebdo, on the heels of the release of that anti-Islam film “Innocence of Muslims,” published new cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad that even to an atheist is insulting. Defended by Charlie Hebdo editors as satire, the cartoons badly miss the mark and border on the repulsive. This new round of cartoons only serve to heighten tensions between Muslims and non-Muslims.
So how did it come that bigots face prosecution for directing hate speech toward Jews, but not Muslims?
France’s hate speech laws have been on the books since 1881, but the courts more often than not rule against religious organizations no matter what the affiliation.
And to be fair, Christian groups in France have lost more civil and criminal hate cases than any other religion.
The courts refused to ban “The Last Temptation of the Christ” in 1988. The courts also refused a request by Christian groups to remove a movie poster for the 1996 film “The People Vs. Larry Flynt” for its sexually suggestive imagery mixed with Christian icons. In 2005, the courts denied a request to remove a fashion clothing billboard depicting female models and a shirtless man in a scene from The Last Super.
Likewise, French courts refused to ban Salman Rushdie’s “The Satanic Versus” in 1989. The courts acquitted Charlie Hebdo’s editor in 2006 on charges of maligning Islam by republishing the Danish cartoons depicting the Prophet. The court ruled that the cartoons were directed at fundamentalists and terrorists and not the entire Muslim community.
Yet in 2008, a court convicted France’s most beloved actress, Brigitte Bardot, for inciting racial and religious hatred against Muslims. She had complained in a letter made public that Muslims are destroying the country.
The Muslim question, if you want to call it that, is relatively new, having arisen in the past 20 years with the rising number of immigrants coinciding with the mainstreaming of the right-wing lunatic fringe into European and American politics and media. These secular and religious extremist groups demand that free speech protections be exported worldwide without respect to the sensibilities of other religious organizations, whether Christian, Jewish or Muslim.
The argument from the West is that a religion targeted for satire should be strong enough to take ridicule. More important, the attacks should not be taken personally. Since many Christian branches made a pact with governments centuries ago to separate church and state, Westerners generally view religion as private and at a distance. As Stanley Fish put it in the New York Times recently, religion in secular countries is an “add-on” to personhood, much like a political party or sports team. There is no such division in Islam or Orthodox Judaism. Faith is not a part-time endeavor. The entire person-hood is faith. This is what distinguishes Muslims and Orthodox Jews from other religions. While there are a great many Muslims who may believe in secularism or are indifferent to the haters — after all, Islam is not the monolithic religion the media portray it to be — for the vast majority in the Middle East and South Asia denigration of their religion is indeed a personal insult.
If secular groups want to drag Jesus through the mud in the name of free speech, must Muslims accept this denigration? Of course not. Such depictions of Jesus, Muhammad or Abraham are unthinkable in the Muslim community.
While French hate speech laws seem toothless, success in the courts depend on how Western societies regard their minority populations. For now, the laws treat Islam pretty much the same way it does Christianity. However, organized advocacy among disparate religious groups will help the courts rethink their approach to hate speech cases.
I am not singling out France. I am holding it up as an example of how Western nations in good faith keep hate speech laws on the books but apply the law inconsistently. They have yet to reconcile such protections with the increasing prominence of hate groups that abuse that right. The line between free speech and hate is so fine that governments can’t confidently prosecute the latter because it may come at the expense of the former. The United States is an entirely different matter, where the First Amendment is so highly regarded that it’s unlikely that lobbying to legislate hate speech will gain any traction.
Regardless of the path governments take to control hate speech, those who take offense to such things can take solace that thousands of insults have been hurled against the prophets and their religions still stand tall and sturdy as ever.

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November 5, 2011

Op-Ed: Firebombed Newspaper Charlie Hebdo a Victim of its Own Making

By Rob L. Wagner

MidEastPosts

5 November 2011

A thug is a thug. And thugs who firebomb newspaper offices deserve the harshest punishment under the law. But do I sympathize with the editors of the French newspaper Charlie Hebdo when someone firebombed their offices after publishing a cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad on its cover?

No. The violence is inexcusable and the bombers must be brought to justice. But Charlie Hebdo hardly deserves victim status.

Do I believe the attack was an assault on freedom of speech?

Nope.

Charlie Hebdo decided to publish an edition “guest edited” by the Prophet Muhammad as an attempt at satire to “celebrate” the Islamist Ennahda Party’s victory in the recent Tunisian elections.

This celebration took place in the form of demeaning cartoons of the Prophet and women in burqas, spoofs on Sharia and such fanciful lines as “100 Lashes if You Don’t Die Laughing.”

All in the spirit of good, clean fun because, you know, Muslims need to lighten up.

I have been a working journalist for more than 35 years. The First Amendment is the most vital component of what I do for a living. Without it I’m not reporting news or giving an opinion, but just someone writing advertising copy. One cannot work effectively in journalism without the legal protection of free speech. So it is not without considerable soul-searching that I reject the idea of pushing for solidarity on the issue of free speech for Charlie Hebdo’s editors who insist on mocking the religion of 1.5 billion people.

There are still enough news people out there who consider journalism a calling. We take the words we write seriously, and we carefully weigh those words that have an impact on our readers and community. And power to all those opinion writers who believe that being offensive is the best way to deliver their message.

Yet it is no excuse for publishing offensive material just because you can publish it. There’s no excuse for promoting racial, ethnic and religious hatred and say it is okay because it is just satire. Playing the free speech card is a cop out. It is nothing more than an excuse to perpetuate stereotypes and stoke the flames of bigotry. Islamophobic bloggers argue that republishing the Danish newspaper cartoons is a display of solidarity to fight for our free speech rights. They argue that since Christianity is fair game, so should Islam. Why, Islamophobes whine, should there be a two-tiered approach to mocking and ridiculing religion if one religion gets a free pass and the other doesn’t?

The mainstream media have managed to steer clear of mocking Jews, but many publications revel in portraying the Prophet as a dirty, hook nosed Arab or having a bomb in his turban. The ugly stereotypes of Jews in Nazi propaganda are still fresh in our minds. Today, publishing such hateful images is unacceptable under any circumstances. However, Charlie Hebdo and its supporters believe it is just fine to demean Muslims in the same manner.

Charlie Hebdo chose to publish its Prophet Muhammad edition because it could and because its editors knew that it would anger and hurt the Muslim community. In a seriously twisted effort to encourage Muslims to assimilate in French society, the government banned the hijab in public institutions and the burqa everywhere outside the home. These laws have done nothing but to marginalize a segment of French society. Charlie Hebdo’s editors are well aware of a disaffected Muslim community, but decided to further marginalize them by publishing images of Muslim stereotypes. The newspaper has a history of this kind of behavior when it faced criminal charges in 2008 for “publicly abusing a group of people because of their religion” after Muslim groups had complained. A French appeals court acquitted the publication of the charges.

The editors knew of the consequences of publishing the Prophet Muhammad edition. There are plenty of nasty people willing to do harm over the smallest slight. But when bad things happened, the newspaper’s editors, in a cynical ploy to gain attention and in a bid to become free speech martyrs, cried that it was an assault on free speech. It was really an assault of their own making. Now they are milking their suffering to create an image that they are champions of a free press.

Enacting censorship laws certainly would certainly stifle press freedoms and I have grave concerns over the Organization of Islamic Cooperation’s efforts to pass anti-blasphemy legislation. But Charlie Hebdo’s editors and their ilk abuse the privilege of being journalists. Their behavior only strengthens the OIC’s argument that anti-blasphemy laws are necessary to keep bigotry out of the news media.

The newspaper’s staff can boo-hoo all they want – ultimately it they who are the bigots, manipulating their victimhood to gain undeserved support of the journalistic fraternity.

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